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A Personal History of Adaptogens

By Elsa de Berker

More than ever, we’re looking for ways to increase our vitality via sustainable and natural measures. And the turn of a New Year is the perfect time to rethink, tweak, or entirely overhaul how we take care of our wellbeing. I’m going to call it: 2020 is the year for investing in quality ingredients that nourish our bodies both internally and externally, with cumulative effects that can help safeguard us for years. More specifically, I’m making a case for this decade being the time to inform ourselves of the vast and varied benefits of the 5,000-year-old ancient science of Ayurveda. Born in India, it’s a holistic healing system that champions the natural world and simple ritualsand it can thrive alongside Western health and beauty practices.

Before we continue, I should make it clear that I am not a doctor, nor do I intend to train as one. I am a writer and a certified health coach with a keen interest in wellness. My experience with Ayurveda is exactly thatmy own. But, I have been seeing Ayurvedic practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic since I was a kid, and I hope that by sharing my anecdotal story it might inspire others to delve into the fascinating history behind its pillars, practices, and use of adaptogens as medicine.

Here’s the abridged version of my relationship with Ayurveda: Aged 12, my mum took me to see Anne McIntyre, a medical herbalist and Ayurvedic practitioner with close to 40 years experience. I was suffering from a mild vitamin B deficiency and repeated stomach aches. Anne prescribed some bitter, woody-tasting concoctions and explained some basic food-combining principles to help with my diet. This is clearly over-simplified, but in short, I saw her again three months later and my blood levels had regained equilibrium and my aches had all but diminished to the occasional stabbing pain after eating dairy (turns out I’m lactose intolerant). 

I saw Anne off and on throughout the remainder of my teens, but took a big break from all things Ayurveda during my college years. It wasn’t until I was around 24 that I reconnected with it: I was at a high stress job, my skin was perpetually inflamed, and my period went missing for one, then two, then five months. My gynaecologist said I was fine, but my intuition knew that something was off in my body. That’s when I sought out the guidance of Dr. Pratima Raichur, the founder of New York City’s only green Ayurvedic wellness clinic. I left my first appointment laden with lifestyle suggestions and medical-grade turmeric pills, as well as a number of other adaptogenic complexes (involving ingredients like shatavari, shilajit, and ashwagandha) to support my adrenal glands, circadian rhythm, and reproductive system. To cut it short: My period returned within six weeks, and I have seen Pratima intermittently ever since, (I recently turned 30).

Seeking personalized advice from certified Ayurvedic practitioners can get pricey, but investing in yourself via the healing system’s great wisdom doesn’t have to come at a high cost—you can find many basic, raw ingredients at your local drug store or supermarket, and there are plenty of free online resources if you feel like digging deeper. Many Western brands are catching onto the topical effects of traditionally Ayurvedic ingredients, too. [Think: the strengthening effect of rhodiola that Youth To The People wields in this cream and mist, for example.] For those of us with a more maximalist inclination, it’s worth noting beforehand that adaptogens—of Ayurvedic origin, or other—work via consistent use, so lathering on tons or double-dropping pills once a week isn’t going to necessarily do anything. You need to incorporate them into your daily rituals.

The complexities of Ayurvedic practices for serious ailments is well beyond my remit, but for an easy start to the profound body of knowledge it offers, I recommend reading this on its history, plus this academic paper on the use of adaptogens across cultures. Also, take a quiz (like this one), to help determine your individual blueprint aka ‘dosha.’ (According to its science, in Ayurveda everyone is born with one predominant dosha that is linked to their mind and body. Once that has been identified, a practitioner can help with targeted dietary advice, herbal treatments, and self-care practices in accordance with the season.) Another thing to note: Although good-quality clinical trials on Ayurveda in Western medical papers are relatively sparse, it remains the most common form of healthcare in India with its own dedicated institution to research and regulate it. 

So at the turn of the new year I put this forward, again: As we prepare our resolutions, why not make this decade the one to familiarize yourself with the ancient traditions of Ayurveda? Read more, and explore its ingredients, cultural roots, and literature. You might not become an expert, but you might find that its principles and practices resonate with you—just like they do with me.